First off, let’s start by saying that submissive urination is a common and normal problem among sweet young puppies. If your dog pees when they are being approached by people or dogs, when they are being greeted and pet, or when they hear loud noises while displaying submissive postures, such as cowering, tucking the tail between their legs, flattening their ears or rolling, you are probably dealing with submissive urination.
You are not alone! A lot of people have experienced getting down on their hands and knees to clean up the droplets of urine that their puppy made while wiggling her body and wagging her tail with great enthusiasm. Some dogs who are otherwise completely housetrained release at least some of the contents of their bladder during greetings. Submissive urination is not a housetraining problem. It’s a social issue.
When Puppies Pee on The Floor It's Normal
There is good news if you have a puppy who does pees when you pet them. First, most dogs outgrow this behavior by the time they are a year old, so it tends to be temporary. Second, dogs with this issue almost always have lovely sweet temperaments. So, while the urination can be irritating and a pain to clean up, the fact that dogs greet in this manner actually speaks well of them. Ironically, when a dog urinates during greetings, she is showing respect for the other dog or person. When people tell me they have a puppy who does this, I am torn between expressing sympathy to them for the inconvenience they are dealing with now and saying “Congratulations!” with a hearty smile because I think they are likely to have many years ahead of them with a dog who brings them nothing but joy.
Submission Urination in Older Dogs
I recently consulted with a family whose sweet, three-year-old Newfoundland was urinating inside the home and because their veterinarian could find no medical reason for it, she had referred them to me to handle the “housetraining” problem. To many people, house soiling without a medical cause is always related to housetraining, but behaviorists recognize that many issues involving urination indoors can be signs of appeasement behavior or a need to mark territory, among other possibilities.
Initially it was a challenge to get contextual information from the family about the problem because they just kept saying, “He pees everywhere, and it’s such a mess!” and then detailing the clean-up, which was no doubt considerable given that the dog weighed 125 pounds. With persistent inquiry, however, I was finally able to get a fuller picture; it turned out not to be a housetraining problem after all. The dog’s housetraining was solid, but he peed during greetings. As a puppy, he urinated whenever he greeted anyone, but now he only did it when greeting the husband or the occasional male visitor, especially if the visitor reached for the dog.
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Recognizing that the inappropriate urination was a specific type of social issue rather than one of bladder control— or not knowing or caring where it was appropriate to eliminate— made it easier to address the real issue: the husband’s approach to his sensitive dog. Though he thought he was doing right by his dog by being firm and applying stern, consistent discipline, he was open to a new approach. I was able to help the family by teaching the husband kinder, gentler and more effective ways to interact with his dog and influence the dog’s behavior. As a result, the dog stopped urinating in the house. No program designed to solve a housetraining problem would have achieved this result, which had the added benefit of improving the overall family dynamic as well.
Red Flags to Consider
In contrast to feeling hopeful about dogs who are submissive urinators, a little red flag goes off in my mind when I hear people say that their dog was so easy to house train that there were only one or two accidents ever and she totally got it by 8-10 weeks old. It’s just an observation to me that many dogs who later go on to have issues with aggression were housetrained early and easily. This is just an impression I have based on my own experience as a behaviorist with clients and their dogs, though it is shared by several other trainers and behaviorists with whom I have discussed it. There are no solid data on the subject. Also, this does not apply to people who prevented accidents with top-notch housetraining methods. Many dogs have very few accidents because the people are on top of the situation. This is commendable but does not mean the dog really gets it yet—just that she is not being allowed to make mistakes. I’m only referring to dogs who really are housetrained at an early age and no longer require the constant vigilance of the people in the household to prevent mistakes.
What’s your experience? Did you have a dog who urinated submissively that fit the pattern I observed of being a sweet biddable dog, or did you have an exception? Do you know of a dog who was housetrained with far less than the usual effort who later had aggression issues, or did you know an exception to that, too? As a scientist, I love the patterns, and I love the exceptions, too.